The Reading Room

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Review of White Noise by Don De Lillo….

That Don DeLillo hasn’t been recognised by the Nobel Prize for Literature is beyond me. One of America’s greatest living authors, his body of work from the early seventies through to today and counting is a lesson in the great art of storytelling and particularly so through the use of dialogue. DeLillo is the master of his craft.

White Noise takes the premise of an ‘airborne toxic event’, plants it within an American town and observes how one family in particular copes with not only the event but life before, during and after it. Jack Gladney is a professor who introduced Hitler studies to his university, he called his son ‘Heinrich’ so as to give him an air of authority in later life, his wife, Babette also has children from an earlier marriage with all but the infant seemingly wiser and more hard-wired than their parents. Their conversations flow in a gloriously helter skelter manner, time and again DeLillo delivers mundane arguments and back seat quizzes with pin sharp accuracy, the dialogue jumps from the page.

White Noise, it strikes me, is the background soundtrack to everyday American life. It is the voice coming from the supermarket tannoy, off the cuff repartee with his friend Murray, pillow talk with Babette, faltering lessons in speaking German, media overload and above all, a vocal discourse on mortality. As Gladney comes to terms with the fallout from the cloud of toxic waste which cleared the town of its residents for nine days he discovers his wife has been secretly trialling a drug called Dylar along with sexual liasons with the suspicious project manager, Mr Gray who plays on her fears of dying to satisfy his lust.

Here then, is a couple consumed by the thought of dying, that most basic facts of human life of one not wanting to leave the other and all the while 1980s America continues to spew out the white noise of data which becomes increasingly interwoven with everyday lives. Whilst the adults accept the creeping advance of technology it is Heinrich who questions it most whilst cooped up in the emergency barracks sitting out the black cloud: “Name one thing you could make. Could you make a simple wooden match that you could strike on a rock to make a flame? We think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks…..could you rub flints together? Would you know a flint if you saw one? ….What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer, it grows and changes every second of every day but nobody actually knows anything” Thirty three years on from the books release it would seem that little has changed.

DeLillo captures the essence of modern life; twenty four hour media saturation, fake goods, fake news. An obsession with consumerism and the headlong rush into technology, wonder drugs and quick fixes. It is a family satire with a deadly serious undertone, a philosophical look at what we have become and what we have left behind. If you have read Underworld then you will know what DeLillo is capable of delivering and in White Noise he delivers one of his very best novels.

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